October 5, 2006 | World Defense Review

Nigeria at the Crossroads

Over the long-term, perhaps no African country is as vital to the strategic interests of the United States as Nigeria. Alas, the country is also a study in contradictions.

With some 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves – the largest in Africa and the eighth largest in the world – the West African country is currently America's fifth-largest supplier of oil.

Last year, for example, according to data tracked by the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, Nigeria shipped 418,778,000 barrels of oil to the U.S. (by comparison, third-ranked Saudi Arabia sold us 556,006,000 barrels last year). Yet despite the estimated $8.5 billion that this brought into government coffers – on top of the more than $300 billion in oil revenues over the past quarter-century – per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has collapsed by more than three-quarters over the same period.

It is no wonder that the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2005 actually determined that such perennially miserable places like Bangladesh, Burma, and Haiti were actually better off than Nigeria.

With a population of over 130 million, Nigeria also has Africa's largest population. But it is a population divided along ethnic and religious lines. While the Fulani and Hausa in the north and the Igbo and Yoruba in the southeast and southwest respectively are the largest ethnic groups, Nigerians are actually divided into more than 250 ethnic groups who share no common history – even the British colonial authorities ran the future country as three separate territories – except for the violence and other predations of military rulers who, except for several brief periods, including the present, have misgoverned since independence in 1960. And the almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims have been dancing very close to the precipice since 1999 when twelve predominantly Muslim northern states (out of a total of 36 states plus the federal capital territory of Abuja) began adopting separate legal codes based on Islamic shari‘a law over the objections of their own Christian and other religious minorities as well as southern and central states. The resulting communal riots have taken an estimated 10,000 lives.

Hence it is not surprising that, recognizing the potential for mischief in this highly charged set of elements, Osama bin Laden himself, in a February 11, 2003, audio message broadcast by al-Jazeera, declared Nigeria as one of six “most qualified regions for liberation” from “those unjust and renegade ruling regimes, which are enslaved by the United States” (the other five were Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen).

As I have reported in an earlier column in this series, Islamist radicals have not been slow to take the al-Qaeda leader up on his suggestion, increasing their activities to exploit the local religious and political tensions and to prepare the ground for further penetration if not a shift in operational theatres for al-Qaeda.

And, as I likewise previously chronicled, when set against this volatile backdrop, even purely local grievances have a way of spiraling into global concerns: witness the attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a small group thought to represent the grievances of the ethnic minorities in the region over environmental damage and political neglect, have nonetheless cut petroleum production by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, or approximately 25 percent of Nigeria's capacity, since the beginning of this year.

Up to now despite all his defects (including an ill-considered and failed attempt to amend the constitution to permit a third presidential term), one of few things holding Nigeria together has been President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was first elected in 1999 (he was reelected in 2003) with overwhelming support from sixty-two percent of voters.

After fifteen years of military rule – the last five under the brutal dictatorship of Sani Abacha – the Nigerian establishment and people found a seemingly ideal consensus candidate in Obasanjo: Himself one-time military ruler in the 1970s, Obasanjo had however turned over power to an elected civilian government and, in fact, had been subsequently imprisoned by Abacha for several years in the 1990s. A Yoruba of born-again Christian faith, he nonetheless enjoyed widespread support among the northern Muslims who had long dominated Nigerian politics and among whom he had spent most of his career. A well-connected member of the international elite – he counted Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter among his friends and had sat on the boards of progressive organizations like the Ford Foundation and Transparency International – he nevertheless has been a close ally of the United States in the war on terrorism and provided peacekeepers for missions like Liberia and Darfur which Washington favored but to which it did not want to commit American troops.

All things considered, Obasanjo has had a good run at it. Not only has he given Nigeria the longest period of civilian rule in its history, he has scored some notable successes, including a historical debt relief concession from the Paris Club that wipes out some $30 billion of the country's $37 billion external debt.

Ironically, it is some of Obasanjo's achievements that have, however unintentionally, sown the seeds of trouble over the horizon. His policy, especially during his first term, of cashiering military officers who were particularly egregious in their corruption resulted largely in the dismissal of northern Muslims.

Likewise, economic and political reforms have broken the monopoly of northern influence while increased democratization has permitted long-repressed tensions to surface. Compounding all of this, Obansanjo's dismantling of the military dictatorship's pervasive security apparatus resulted in a vacuum in which ethnic and religious strife turned deadlier. And, again ironically, America, already unpopular in the Muslim world in part because of its longstanding support of authoritarian regimes, finds itself blamed by some Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria precisely for advocating democratic reforms like those undertaken in their country since the end of military rule in 1999, changes which have undermined the privileged positions of resource-poor northerners used to consoling themselves with at least having military – and, hence, political – power over their southern countrymen whose lands have been more favored by nature with resources above and below the ground.

It is in this context that the Nigerian general elections, now set for April 21, 2007, take on an immense importance. If President Obasanjo manages to hand over his place on Abuja's Aso Rock to whoever is elected, he will not only achieve a feat that no other Nigerian leader has ever managed – the peaceful transition from one democratically-elected head of state to another – he make a significant contribution to regional stability and international security, including the strategic interests of the United States, as an oil-rich nation with a Muslim population three times that of Saudi Arabia consolidates its budding democracy.

If, on the other hand, the democratic transition falters or is otherwise thwarted or subverted or if, in the worst case – but by no means unimaginable – scenario, federal Nigeria simply comes unglued along regional, religious, and ethnic lines, it will not be long before the economic, political, and military ripples in the Niger come ashore as waves crashing over the banks of the Hudson and the Potomac.

Osama bin Laden is, no doubt, following these developments closely. Are we?

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.